In a stunning article from the CBC yesterday, those of us that work in harm reduction and drug policy dropped our jaws in utter excitement at the prospect that Evolve Music Festival in Nova Scotia was offering testing kits to partygoers. This was a big move, and one that we hoped would make people who are going to use drugs pause and consider their use. Sadly, less than a day later, the CBC reported that Evolve was going to lose its insurance due to this. The feeling of elation we experienced disappeared, and we were left momentarily silent at the fall of a music festival trying to do the right thing.
First, we should talk about reagent testing kits. A reagent drug testing kit does not tell you your drugs are safe, or even that the drug you are taking is the one that you bought. If anything a kit can only tell you if there are other substances in a powder, it can never verify that your substance indeed is 100% pure. Even if it could tell you purity, there are still risks associated with each and every substance, not to mention that they carry a high level of social stigma and at this current point in time are illegal. This is something that every harm reduction organization emphasizes emphatically and something that the people I have known who use drugs also know through personal experience. When PMMA was being distributed in British Columbia back in 2012, had those 5 people known that they were consuming PMMA, and that it carried a high likelihood of leading to their deaths, there’s a strong likelihood they would have chosen not to take it.
The troubling thing about a decision like this is that it sets a precedent, and a terrifying one at that.
These last few weeks have not been good for harm reduction. The Bunk Police, an organization that does drug checking in The United States, had all of their equipment confiscated by Bonnaroo for offering checking. Dancesafe was kicked out of Electric Forest, even when they complied with every one of Electric Forest’s requests. As someone who has been working to establish a nightlife organization in Vancouver for the past year, only to be told by promoters that they are afraid to lose their insurance, it says to them that they should not have us at their events.
The irony here is that harm reduction saves lives. Harm reduction is not just test kits, it is having lifesaving information available, it is keeping paramedics on staff. Could you imagine if we lived in a world where at music festivals paramedics were not available? Event goers stand out in the sun for hours on end. Even if they are not consuming drugs (even alcohol!) they still can run the risk of getting heatstroke, or being dehydrated. Yet when those people pass out, no one would question whether or not having health professionals on site would lead to a safer populace at a music event. No one actively desires heatstroke, but it happens, and when it does you want someone to deal with it immediately. Sending people to the hospital is not good for an insurance company either.
Mind you, test kits are in themselves not enough. A testing kit without any knowledge of how it works and what the other substances are is not going to make you much safer. Only a holistic approach to harm reduction will minimize risk. Not consuming substances is still always going to be the safest option (that includes you, alcohol!), yet, people still are consuming these substances. It is time to have a conversation about how best to protect our loved ones, and community. Evolve is only responding to a problem with the only tool they have.
Why are they being punished?
Last night Evolve responded to all of the support from the community stating that they may have an insurance provider after all!
Today Evolve confirmed that the show indeed will go on. Unfortunately, while Evolve found an insurer, testing kits have been dropped from the program. Deep sadness here, as this is still a loss for health promotion and the safety of the guests! While it confirms the need for this important harm reduction service at festivals, ultimately testing services will not be available at the festival this weekend due to insurance difficulties. Still, here are some twitter highlights from a very emotional day:
— CBC Nova Scotia (@CBCNS) July 8, 2015
“Harm reduction is the new black of festivals.” @evolvefestival producer Jonas Colter on kits to test drug purity at concert. Good idea?
— Maritime Noon (@CBCMaritimeNoon) July 8, 2015
— Canadian Drug Policy (@CANdrugpolicy) July 8, 2015
Alex Betsos is an undergraduate in sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University. He is the Personnel Liaison for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and the Volunteer Coordinator for Karmik, a west coast based harm reduction initiative.